Sunday Night Special: Stargazy Pie & Saffron Potatoes
Based on my recent media exposure to modern British food, which pretty much only consists of Olive magazine and The F Word, there seems to be a trend toward revamping or rediscovering classics. Prawn cocktail, cottage pie, syllabub and suet-based oddities like Sussex pond pudding. I’ve been surprised how much attention is given to Sunday roasts. I didn’t realize the meal was such a big thing and that’s not the direction I wanted to go. While I love those skin-on, crackly pork roasts, what I really wanted to cook was something fun.
I was looking for a recipe to fit the Fish & Quips call to arms (I rarely get involved with these food blog cooking events but this one struck my fancy), and had a hard time striking a balance between the stodgy and the esoteric. I most definitely didn’t want to delve into spotted dick or faggots territory. This is supposed to be an exercise to prove that English food isn’t a joke, duh.
I surprised myself with the number of appropriate cookbooks and pamphlets I had at my disposal. I was thinking that my only option would be The Cooking of the British Isles, which I found on the street some time ago. But it turned out I also owned Favorite Devonshire Recipes, Symington’s Recipes, a 1930s, thin promotional book with horrific recipes like tomato sauce & fried bread and green pea eggs, which are scotch eggs with a layer of Symington’s pea soup between the white and breadcrumb layer, Carrier Cookery Cards in seafood, soups, main dishes and salads and cakes, sweets and puddings, Recipes for The Nation’s Favourite Food, Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail Eating (without the Tony Bourdain intro but with an entire [small] chapter devoted to lamb brains), Traditional Scottish Cookery and British Regional Food. And well, technically Moro is a British cookbook, despite its Mediterranean cuisine.
Fish pie popped up in three of the four issues of Olive I’ve received since Christmas. Who knows if that’s any gauge of the dish’s popularity? I’m not acquainted with fish pie but I liked some of the takes on it even though smoked haddock seemed like it might be a pain to procure. Then I stumbled upon stargazy pie, which totally sounded up my alley. The recipe I found in British Regional Food had no photo so I was trying to imagine if fish heads truly did stick out of the top of the crust. To me, that’s not creepy but adorable. One of my favorite Indian by way of Singapore and Malaysia dishes is fish head curry; no one should fear the fish head.
Based fully on what I read with no grounding in reality, stargazy pie appears to be a specialty of Mousehole (pronounced mowzol) that is served on December 23. I don’t get the feeling this is a popular, or even particularly well known dish. But what do I know? I’ve never been to Cornwall. I have heard of pasties, though.
Unfortunately, pilchards are about as easy to find as that smoked haddock. I didn’t even find any fresh sardines (ok, I only tried two shops) so I went with the suggested mackerel (herring being another option I couldn’t find un-pickled). It’s a bargain fish at only 99-cents a pound at Pacific Supermarket, a Chinese grocer. Later in the day, I saw the exact same fish listed as Boston mackerel for $3.99/lb at Fairway. The only problem was knowing how many to buy. The recipe called for six pilchards and I guessed those were smaller. I bought four mackerel but only ended up using three.
Many of the recipes I found kept the fish whole and propped the heads up against the rim. That seemed precarious and I went with the version that cut the heads off and reserved them as more of a last minute decorative addition. Supposedly, the heads were traditionally included pointing upward so that essential oils would run down into the pie. All variations were fairly simple, no fancy spices (yes, the bland cliché has basis in fact) so I spruced it up minutely because salt, pepper and parsley aren’t enough for me. I’ve lightly adapted the following recipe from British Regional Food.
1 onion, finely chopped
3 strips of bacon, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon butter
½ tablespoon flour, plus more for dusting
3 tablespoons dry white wine
8 ½ ounces fish stock
10 ounces heavy cream (double cream if you have it)
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 hard boiled eggs, shelled and chopped
1 thyme sprig
1 star anise
3 mackerel (or a few more pilchards, sardines or herring) filleted, residual bones removed and heads reserved
2 sheets of puff pastry
1 egg, beaten
Gently cook the onion and bacon in the butter until soft. Add the flour and stir well, then slowly add the wine and fish stock, stirring well to prevent lumps from forming. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes.
Add the cream, bring back to a boil and simmer until reduced by half and thickened. Remove from heat; add parsley, chopped egg, thyme, star anise, season with salt and pepper and leave to cool. Remove sprig of thyme and star anise.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lay a sheet of puff pasty in a shallow pie pan and trim excess. Cut the fillets of fish in half and lay them on top of the pastry, then lightly season. Pour the sauce over them, then lay the other sheet of pastry over the dish and trim to size. Make as many small slits in the pastry as fish heads and push the reserved heads through. Brush the top with the beaten egg.
Bake for 40-45 minutes.
Roast potatoes are a logical accompaniment (though the stargazy recipe called for greens in fall and winter or a selection of spring vegetables. I’m not sure what you do in summer). I used a Delia Smith recipe for saffron potatoes, which were good but not as good as they could’ve been because I wimped out and cut the fat by a third. I have noticed that one of the secrets to nice, crispy English roasted potatoes is the roughing up bit after they've boiled. The battered edges absorb more of the oil or butter. Yum.
To be honest, I was mildly concerned that this dish would be all (weirdo) style, no substance. But the pie ended up a rich, creamy and yes, fishy, success. If you didn’t like strong, oily fish in the first place, it probably wouldn’t make a convert out of you. I don’t know that I will incorporate stargazy pie into a frequent dinner rotation, though I’ll certainly tuck it away for future reference.